A federal court judge set a hearing date Wednesday in the 15-month dispute over who owns a tiny Renoir painting that was stolen in 1951 from the Baltimore Museum of Art, but she also urged both parties to consider settling.
The miniature landscape was part of a box of odds and ends in a rural flea market that was purchased by a Virginia woman in 2009 without knowing the value of the unsigned artwork. Since then, its ownership has been in question.
During a pretrial conference in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said she will hear arguments Jan. 10 on the museum's motion to be awarded ownership of the 1879 oil painting, "Paysage Bords de Seine." Attorney Marla Diaz, who said she intends to file the motion next week, is expected to argue that the museum's case is so strong that a trial is unnecessary.
If Brinkema denies the motion in January, a jury trial would begin five days later.
T. Wayne Biggs, the attorney for Marcia Fuqua, 51, of Lovettsville, Va., has submitted a proposed settlement to the museum. Brinkema encouraged both sides to seriously discuss such an outcome, saying that litigation costs could quickly surpass a settlement sum.
"If the museum really wants the painting," Brinkema said, "offering a settlement might make sense."
Only two potential claimants for the landscape remain: the Baltimore museum and Fuqua, who said she bought the painting for $7. Before her identity was disclosed in court documents, Fuqua adopted the pseudonym of "Renoir Girl."
At the urging of her mother, she took the painting to the Potomack Company in Alexandria, which authenticated the work and also assigned it an estimated value between $75,000 and $100,000.
An auction was called off the day before the painting was scheduled to be sold, after museum director Doreen Bolger found an orange index card stating that the painting had been stolen on Nov. 17, 1951.
The only other person or institution with a strong claim to own the oil painting — Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. — has voluntarily transferred its ownership rights to the museum.
Ryan Russell, the insurance company's in-house attorney, said in a telephone interview that the insurer had a solid case for ownership because it paid a $2,500 claim to the museum after the painting disappeared.
"The Baltimore Museum of Art was a very good client of ours for a number of years, and it's part of our culture to give back," Ryan said in April. "It's nice to be able to help the museum. The painting seems important to them and it has an interesting history."
The FBI has been investigating the theft, but no criminal charges have been filed.
If the case does go to trial in two months, at least one potential witness no longer is available to testify. Renoir Girl's mother, Marcia Mae Fuqua, died Sept. 9 at age 85.